TLDEF Files Federal Lawsuit Against South Carolina DMV On Behalf of Transgender Teen Who Was Forced to Remove Her Makeup for a Driver's License Photo

Chase Culpepper On September 2, TLDEF filed a federal lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles on behalf of a 16-year-old teen who was targeted for discrimination last March. When she attempted to get her first driver’s license, Chase Culpepper was told by the DMV that she could not take her license photo unless she removed the makeup that she wears on a regular basis. (You may recall that at the time of the incident and lawsuit filing, we referred to Chase as gender nonconforming and used male pronouns in accordance with her wishes. Chase has since begun identifying as transgender and using female pronouns and our discussion of her case reflects that here.)

The lawsuit – brought by Chase’s mother Teresa Culpepper on Chase’s behalf as a minor – asks the court to rule that denying Chase the freedom to wear her everyday makeup in her license photo constitutes sex discrimination and violates her right to free speech and expression under the United States Constitution. It also seeks a ruling under the U.S. and South Carolina Constitutions that the DMV’s photo policy is unconstitutionally vague, too broad, and lets DMV employees arbitrarily decide how a driver's license applicant should look, without regard for the rights of the people they are supposed to serve.

“My clothing and makeup reflect who I am,” Chase said. “The Department of Motor Vehicles should not have forced me to remove my makeup simply because my appearance does not match what they think I should look like. I just want the freedom to be who I am without the DMV telling me that I’m somehow not good enough.”

“Chase is entitled to express her gender identity without interference from the South Carolina DMV,” said TLDEF Executive Director Michael Silverman. “It is not the role of the DMV or any government agency or employee to decide how Chase should look. She should be able to get a driver’s license without being subjected to sex discrimination.”

Along with TLDEF, Chase’s mother is standing by her. “As a mother, it broke my heart to see Chase being forced to be someone that she isn’t. Every time she pulls out her license, she is reminded of that, and that makes it even worse,” said Teresa Culpepper. “I love my child just the way she is. The DMV should not have treated her this way.”

“I want to take my license photo again, with makeup, so I can be myself and express to the world who I truly am,” Chase added.

The suit, Teresa Culpepper v. Kevin A. Shwedo, et al., is pending in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division. Fulbright & Jaworski LLP and Wyche, P.A. are pro bono co-counsel for Chase and Teresa with TLDEF.